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The Book of Noodles / Stories of Simpletons; or, Fools and Their Follies By W. A. Clouston Characters: 30602

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


HE Schildburgers, it has been already remarked, are the Gothamites of Germany, and the stories of their stupidity, after being orally current for years among the people, were collected near the close of the sixteenth century, the earliest known edition being that of 1597. In a most lively and entertaining article on "Early German Comic Romances" (Foreign Quarterly Review, No. 40, 1837), the late Mr. W.J. Thoms has furnished an account of the exploits of the Schildburgers, from which the following particulars and tales are extracted: "There have been few happier ideas than that of making these simpletons descend from one of the wise men of Greece, and representing them as originally gifted with such extraordinary talents as to be called to the councils of all the princes of the earth, to the great detriment of their circumstances and the still greater dissatisfaction of their wives, and then, upon their being summoned home to arrange their disordered affairs, determining, in their wisdom, to put on the garb of stupidity, and persevering so long and so steadfastly in their assumed character as to prove 'plain fools at last.' No way inferior is the end of this strange tale, which assumes even somewhat of serious interest when the Schildburgers, after performing every conceivable piece of folly, and receiving the especial privilege of so doing under the seal and signature of the emperor, by the crowning act of their lives turn themselves out of house and home, whereby they are compelled, like the Jews, to become outcasts and wanderers over the face of the earth, by which means it has arisen that there is no spot, however remote, on which some of their descendants, who may be known by their characteristic stupidity, are not to be found."

Their first piece of folly was to build a council-house without windows. When they entered it, and, to use the words of the nursery ballad, "saw they could not see," they were greatly puzzled to account for such a state of things; and having in vain gone outside and examined the building to find why the inside was dark, they determined to hold a council upon the subject on the following day. At the time appointed they assembled, each bringing with him a torch, which, on seating himself, he stuck in his hat. After much discussion, one genius, brighter than the rest, decided that they could not see for want of daylight, and that they ought on the morrow to carry in as much of it as possible. Accordingly, the next day, when the sun shone, all the sacks, bags, boxes, baskets, tubs, pans, etc. of the village were filled with its beams and carefully carried into the council-house and emptied there, but with no good effect. After this they removed the roof, by the advice of a traveller, whom they rewarded amply for the suggestion. This plan answered famously during the summer, but when the rains of winter fell, and they were forced to replace the roof, they found the house just as dark as ever. Again they met, again they stuck their torches in their hats, but to no purpose, until by chance one of them was quitting the house, and groping his way along the wall, when a ray of light fell through a crevice and upon his beard, whereupon he suggested, what had never occurred to any of them, that it was possible they might get daylight in by making a window.

Another tale relates how the boors of Schilda contrived to get their millstone twice down from a high mountain:

The boors of Schilda had built a mill, and with extraordinary labour they had quarried a millstone for it out of a quarry which lay on the summit of a high mountain; and when the stone was finished, they carried it with great labour and pain down the hill. When they had got to the bottom, it occurred to one of them that they might have spared themselves the trouble of carrying it down by letting it roll down. "Verily," said he, "we are the stupidest of fools to take these extraordinary pains to do that which we might have done with so little trouble. We will carry it up, and then let it roll down the hill by itself, as we did before with the tree which we felled for the council-house."

This advice pleased them all, and with greater labour they carried the stone to the top of the mountain again, and were about to roll it down, when one of them said, "But how shall we know where it runs to? Who will be able to tell us aught about it?" "Why," said the bailiff, who had advised the stone being carried up again, "this is very easily managed. One of us must stick in the hole [for the millstone, of course, had a hole in the middle], and run down with it." This was agreed to, and one of them, having been chosen for the purpose, thrust his head through the hole, and ran down the hill with the millstone. Now at the bottom of the mountain was a deep fish-pond, into which the stone rolled, and the simpleton with it, so that the Schildburgers lost both stone and man, and not one among them knew what had become of them. And they felt sorely angered against their old companion who had run down the hill with the stone, for they considered that he had carried it off for the purpose of disposing of it. So they published a notice in all the neighbouring boroughs, towns, and villages, calling on them, that "if any one come there with a millstone round his neck, they should treat him as one who had stolen the common goods, and give him to justice." But the poor fellow lay in the pond, dead. Had he been able to speak, he would have been willing to tell them not to worry themselves on his account, for he would give them their own again. But his load pressed so heavily upon him, and he was so deep in the water, that he, after drinking water enough-more, indeed, than was good for him-died; and he is dead at the present day, and dead he will, shall, and must remain!

The forty-seventh chapter recounts "How the Schildburgers purchased a mouser, and with it their own ruin":

Now it happened that there were no cats in Schilda, and so many mice that nothing was safe, even in the bread-basket, for whatsoever they put there was sure to be gnawed or eaten; and this grieved them sorely. And upon a time there came a traveller into the village, carrying a cat in his arms, and he entered the hostel. The host asked him, "What sort of a beast is that?" Said he, "It is a mouser." Now the mice at Schilda were so quiet and so tame that they never fled before the people, but ran about all day long, without the slightest fear. So the traveller let the cat run, who, in the sight of the host, soon caught numbers of mice. Now when the people were told this by the host, they asked the man whether the mouser was to be sold, for they would pay him well for it. He said, "It certainly was not to be sold; but seeing that it would be so useful to them, he would let them have it if they would pay him what was right," and he asked a hundred florins for it. The boors were glad to find that he asked so little, and concluded a bargain with him, he agreeing to take half the money down, and to come again in six months to fetch the rest. As soon as the bargain was struck on both sides, they gave the traveller the half of the money, and he carried the mouser into the granary, where they kept their corn, for there were most mice there. The traveller went off with the money at full speed, for he feared greatly lest they should repent them of the bargain, and want their money back again; and as he went along he kept looking behind him to see that no one was following him. Now the boors had forgotten to ask what the cat was to be fed upon, so they sent one after him in haste to ask him the question. But when he with the gold saw that some one was following him, he hastened so much the more, so that the boor could by no means overtake him, whereupon he called out to him from afar off, "What does it eat?" "What you please! What you please!" quoth the traveller. But the peasant understood him to say, "Men and beasts! Men and beasts!" Therefore he returned home in great affliction, and said as much to his worthy masters.

On learning this they became greatly alarmed, and said, "When it has no more mice to eat, it will eat our cattle; and when they are gone, it will eat us! To think that we should lay out our good money in buying such a thing!" And they held counsel together and resolved that the cat should be killed. But no one would venture to lay hold of it for that purpose, whereupon it was determined to burn the granary, and the cat in it, seeing that it was better they should suffer a common loss than all lose life and limb. So they set fire to the granary. But when the cat smelt the fire, it sprang out of a window and fled to another house, and the granary was burned to the ground. Never was there sorrow greater than that of the Schildburgers when they found that they could not kill the cat. They counselled with one another, and purchased the house to which the cat had fled, and burned that also. But the cat sprang out upon the roof, and sat there, washing itself and putting its paws behind its ears, after the manner of cats; and the Schildburgers understood thereby that the cat lifted up its hands and swore an oath that it would not leave their treatment of it unrevenged. Then one of them took a long pole and struck at the cat, but the cat caught hold of the pole, and began to clamber down it, whereupon all the people grew greatly alarmed and ran away, and left the fire to burn as it might. And because no one regarded the fire, nor sought to put it out, the whole village was burned to a house, and notwithstanding that, the cat escaped. And the Schildburgers fled with their wives and children to a neighbouring forest. And at this time was burned their chancery and all the papers therein, which is the reason why their history is not to be found described in a more regular manner.

Thus ended the career of the Schildburgers as a community, according to the veracious chronicle of their marvellous exploits, the first of which, their carrying sunshine into the council-house, is a favourite incident in the noodle-stories of many countries, and has its parallel in the Icelandic story of the Three Brothers of Bakki: They had observed that in winter the weather was colder than in summer, also that the larger the windows of a house were the colder it was. All frost and sharp cold, therefore, they thought sprang from the fact that houses had windows in them. So they built themselves a house on a new plan, without windows in it at all. It followed, of course, that there was always pitch darkness in it. They found that this was rather a fault in the house, but comforted themselves with the certainty that in winter it would be very warm; and as to light, they thought they could contrive some easy means of getting the house lighted. One fine day in the middle of summer, when the sunshine was brightest, they began to carry the darkness out of the house in their caps, and emptied it out when they came into the sunshine, which they then carried into the dark room. Thus they worked hard the whole day, but in the evening, when they had done all their best, they were not a little disappointed to find that it was as dark as before, so much so that they could not tell one hand from the other.1

There is a Kashmírí story which bears a slight resemblance to the exploit of the Schildburgers with the cat. A poor old woman used to beg her food by day and cook it at night. Half of the food she would eat in the morning, and the other half in the evening. After a while a cat got to know of this arrangement, and came and ate the meal for her. The old woman was very patient, but at last could no longer endure the cat's impudence, and so she laid hold of it. She argued with herself as to whether she should kill it or not. "If I slay it," she thought, "it will be a sin; but if I keep it alive, it will be to my heavy loss." So she determined only to punish it. She procured some cotton wool and some oil, and soaking the one in the other, tied it on to the cat's tail and then set it on fire. Away rushed the cat across the yard, up the side of the window, and on to the roof, where its flaming tail ignited the thatch and set the whole house on fire. The flames soon spread to other houses, and the whole village was destroyed.2

An older form of this incident is found in the introduction to a Persian poetical version of the Book of Sindibád (Sindibád Náma), of which a unique MS. copy, very finely illuminated, but imperfect, is preserved in the Library of the India Office:3 In a village called Buzina-Gird (i.e., Monkey Town) there was a goat that was in the habit of butting at a certain old woman whenever she came into the street. One day the old woman had been to ask fire from a neighbour, and on her return the goat struck her so violently with his horns when she was off her guard as to draw blood. Enraged at this, she applied the fire which she held to the goat's fleece, which kindled, and the animal ran to the stables of the elephant-keeper, and rubbed his sides against the reeds and willows. They caught fire, which the wind soon spread, and the heads and faces of the warlike elephants were scorched. With the sequel-how the king caused all the monkeys to be slaughtered, as their fat was required to cure the scorched elephants-we have no concern at present.4

* * *

In Ceylon whole districts, such as Tumpane, in the central province, Morora Korle, in the southern province, and Rayigam Korle, in the western province, are credited with being the abode of fools. A learned writer on the proverbial sayings of the Sinhalese states that these often refer to "popular stories of stupid people to which foolish actions are likened. The stories of the Tumpane villagers who tried to unearth and carry off a well because they saw a bees' nest reflected in the water; of the Morora Korle boatmen who mistook a bend in the river for the sea, left their cargo there, and returned home; of the Rayigam Korle fools who threw stones at the moon to frighten her off one fine moonlight night when they thought she was coming too near, and that there was danger of her burning their crops, are well known, and it is customary to ask a man if he was born in one of these places if he has done anything particularly foolish. The story of the double-fool-i.e., of the man who tried to lighten the boat by carrying his pingo load over his shoulders;5 of the man who stretched out his hands to be warmed by the fire on the other side of the river; of the rustic's wife who had her own head shaved, so as not to lose the barber's services for the day when he came, and her husband was away from home; of the villagers who tied up their mortars in the village in the belief that the elephant tracks in the rice fields were caused by the mortars wandering about at night; of the man who would not wash his body in order to spite the river; of the people who flogged the elk-skin at home to avenge themselves on the deer that trespassed in the fields at night; and of the man who performed the five precepts-all these are popular stories of foolish people which have passed into proverbs."6

The last of the stories referred t

o in the above extract is as follows: A woman once rebuked her husband for not performing the five (Buddhist) precepts. "I don't know what they are," he replied. "Oh, it's very easy," she said; "all you have to do is to go to the priest and repeat what he says after him." "Is that all?" he answered. "Then I'll go and do it at once." Off he went, and as he neared the temple the priest saw him and called out, "Who are you?" to which he replied, "Who are you?" "What do you want?" demands the priest. "What do you want?" the blockhead answers dutifully. "Are you mad?" roared the priest. "Are you mad?" returned the rustic. "Here," said the priest to his attendants, "take and beat him well;" and notwithstanding that he carefully repeated the words again, taken and thoroughly well thrashed he was, after which he crawled back to his wife and said, "What a wonderful woman you are! You manage to repeat the five precepts every day, and are strong and healthy, while I, who have only said them once, am nearly dead with fever from the bruises."7

To this last may be added a story in the Kathá Manjari, a Canarese collection, of the stupid fellow and the Rámáyana, one of the two great Hindú epics: One day a man was reading the Rámáyana in the bazaar, and a woman, thinking her husband might be instructed by hearing it, sent him there. He went, and stood leaning on his crook-for he was a shepherd-when presently a practical joker, seeing his simplicity, jumped upon his shoulders, and he stood with the man on his back until the discourse was concluded. When he reached home, his wife asked him how he liked the Rámáyana. "Alas!" said he, "it was not easy; it was a man's load."

* * *

The race of Gothamites is indeed found everywhere-in popular tales, if not in actual life; and their sayings and doings are not less diverting when husband and wife are well mated, as in the following story:

An Arab observing one morning that his house was ready to tumble about his ears from decay, and being without the means of repairing it, went with a long face to his wife, and informed her of his trouble. She said, "Why, my dear, need you distress yourself about so small a matter? You have a cow worth thirty dirhams; take her to the market and sell her for that sum. I have some thread, which I will dispose of to-day, and I warrant you that between us both we shall manage very well." The man at once drove the cow to the market, and gave her over for sale to the appraiser of cattle. The salesman showed her to the bystanders, directed their attention to all her good points, expatiated on all her good qualities, and, in short, passed her off as a cow of inestimable value. To all this the simpleton listened with delight and astonishment; he heard his cow praised for qualities that no other cow ever possessed, and determined in his own mind not to lose so rare a bargain, but purchase her himself and balk the chapmen. He therefore called out to the appraiser, and asked him what she was going at. The salesman replied, "At fifteen dirhams and upwards." "By the head of the Prophet," exclaimed the wittol, "had I known that my cow was such a prodigy of excellence, you should not have caught me in the market with her for sale." Now it happened that he had just fifteen dirhams, and no more, and these he thrust upon the broker, exclaiming, "The cow is mine; I have the best claim to her." He then seized the cow and drove her home, exulting all the way as if he had found a treasure. On reaching home he inquired eagerly for his wife, to inform her of his adventure, but was told she was not returned from market. He waited impatiently for her return, when he sprang up to meet her, crying, "Wife, I have done something to-day that will astonish you. I have performed a marvellous exploit!" "Patience!" says his wife. "Perhaps I have done something myself to match it. But hear my story, and then talk of cleverness, if you please." The husband desired her to proceed.

"When I went to market," says she, "I found a man in want of thread. I showed him mine, which he approved of, and having bargained for it, he agreed to pay me according to the weight. I told him it weighed so much, which he seemed to discredit, and weighed it himself. Observing it to fall short of the weight I had mentioned, and fearing I should lose the price I at first expected, I requested him to weigh it over again, and make certain. In the meantime, taking an opportunity unobserved, I stripped off my silver bracelets and put them slily into the scale with my thread. The scale, of course, now preponderated, and I received the full price I had demanded." Having finished her story, she cried out, "Now, what do you think of your wife?" "Amazing! amazing!" said he. "Your capacity is supernatural. And now, if you please, I will give you a specimen of mine," and he related his adventure at the market. "O husband," she exclaimed when he had told his story, "had we not possessed such consummate wisdom and address, how could we have contrived means to repair our old house? In future vex not yourself about domestic concerns, since by the exercise of our talents we need never want for anything!"

The exploits of that precious pair may be compared with the following: An alewife went to the market with a brood of chickens and an old black hen. For the hen and one chicken she could not find a purchaser; so, before leaving the town, she called upon a surgeon, to try to effect a sale. He bought the chicken, but declined taking the hen. She then asked him if he would draw a tooth for it. The tooth was drawn, and he expressed his surprise on finding it was perfectly sound. "Oh," said she, "I knew it was sound; but it was worth while having it drawn for the old hen." She then called upon another surgeon, and had a second tooth drawn, as sound as the other. "What's to pay?" she inquired. "A shilling," said the surgeon. "Very well," rejoined the hostess, with a chuckle; "you left a shilling due in my house the other night, and now we are quits." "Certainly we are," responded the perplexed tooth-drawer, and the delighted old woman returned to her hostelry, to acquaint all her gossips of how cleverly she had outwitted the doctors.

* * *

Ferrier says, in his Illustrations of Sterne, that the facetious tales of the Sieur Gaulard laid the foundation of some of the jests in our old English collections. A few of them found their way somehow into Taylor's Wit and Mirth, and this is one: A monsieur chanced to meet a lady of his acquaintance, and asked her how she did and how her good husband fared, at which she wept, saying that her husband was in heaven. "In heaven!" quoth he. "It is the first time that I heard of it, and I am sorry for it with all my heart."

Similar in its point is a story in Archie Armstrong's Banquet of Jests:8 Sitting over a cup of ale in a winter night, two widows entered into discourse of their dead husbands, and after ripping up their good and bad qualities, saith one of them to the maid, "I prithee, wench, reach us another light, for my husband (God rest his soul!) above all things loved to see good lights about the house. God grant him light everlasting!" "And I pray you, neighbour," said the other, "let the maid lay on some more coals or stir up the fire, for my husband in his lifetime ever loved to see a good fire. God grant him fire everlasting!"

This seems cousin-german to the Arabian story of two men, one of whom hailed from the town of Hama (ancient Hamath), the other from Hums (ancient Emessa). Those towns are not far apart, but the people of the former have the reputation of being very clever, while those of the latter are proverbially as stupid. (And for the proper understanding of the jest it should perhaps be explained that the Arabic verb hama means to "protect" or "defend," the verb hamasa to "roast" or "toast.") These men had some business of importance with the nearest magistrate, and set out together on their journey. The man of Hums, conscious of his own ignorance, begged his companion to speak first in the audience, in order that he might get a hint as to how such a formal matter should be conducted. Accordingly, when they came into the pasha's presence, the man of Hama went forward, and the pasha asked him, "Where are you from?" "Your servant is from Hama," said he. "May Allah PROTECT (hama) your excellency!" The pasha then turned to the other man, and asked, "And where are you from?" to which he answered, "Your servant is from Hums. May Allah ROAST (hamasa) your excellency!"

* * *

Not a few of the Bizarrures of the Sieur Gaulard are the prototypes of bulls and foolish sayings of the typical Irishman, which go their ceaseless round in popular periodicals, and are even audaciously reproduced as original in our "comic" journals-save the mark! To cite some examples:

A friend one day told M. Gaulard that the Dean of Besan?on was dead. "Believe it not," said he; "for had it been so he would have told me himself, since he writes to me about everything."

M. Gaulard asked his secretary one evening what hour it was. "Sir," replied the secretary, "I cannot tell you by the dial, because the sun is set." "Well," quoth M. Gaulard, "and can you not see by the candle?"

On another occasion the Sieur called from his bed to a servant desiring him to see if it was daylight yet. "There is no sign of daylight," said the servant. "I do not wonder," rejoined the Sieur, "that thou canst not see day, great fool as thou art. Take a candle and look with it out at the window, and thou shalt see whether it be day or not."

In a strange house, the Sieur found the walls of his bedchamber full of great holes. "This," exclaimed he in a rage, "is the cursedest chamber in all the world. One may see day all the night through."

Travelling in the country, his man, to gain the fairest way, rode through a field sowed with pease, upon which M. Gaulard cried to him, "Thou knave, wilt thou burn my horse's feet? Dost thou not know that about six weeks ago I burned my mouth with eating pease, they were so hot?"

A poor man complained to him that he had had a horse stolen from him. "Why did you not mark his visage," asked M. Gaulard, "and the clothes he wore?" "Sir," said the man, "I was not there when he was stolen." Quoth the Sieur, "You should have left somebody to ask him his name, and in what place he resided."

M. Gaulard felt the sun so hot in the midst of a field at noontide in August that he asked of those about him, "What means the sun to be so hot? How should it not keep its heat till winter, when it is cold weather?"

A proctor, discoursing with M. Gaulard, told him that a dumb, deaf, or blind man could not make a will but with certain additional forms. "I pray you," said the Sieur, "give me that in writing, that I may send it to a cousin of mine who is lame."

One day a friend visited the Sieur and found him asleep in his chair. "I slept," said he, "only to avoid idleness; for I must always be doing something."

The Abbé of Poupet complained to him that the moles had spoiled a fine meadow, and he could find no remedy for them. "Why, cousin," said M. Gaulard, "it is but paving your meadow, and the moles will no more trouble you."

M. Gaulard had a lackey belonging to Auvergne, who robbed him of twelve crowns and ran away, at which he was very angry, and said he would have nothing that came from that country. So he ordered all that was from Auvergne to be cast out of the house, even his mule; and to make the animal more ashamed, he caused his servants to take off its shoes and its saddle and bridle.

* * *

Although Taylor's Wit and Mirth is the most "original" of our old English jest-books-that is to say, it contains very few stories in common with preceding collections-yet some of the diverting tales he relates are traceable to very distant sources, more especially the following:

A country fellow (that had not walked much in streets that were paved) came to London, where a dog came suddenly out of a house, and furiously ran at him. The fellow stooped to pick up a stone to cast at the dog, and finding them all fast rammed or paved in the ground, quoth he, "What a strange country am I in, where the people tie up the stones and let the dogs loose!"

Three centuries and a half before the Water Poet heard this exquisitely humorous story, the great Persian poet Sa'dí related it in his Gulistán (or Rose-garden), which was written A.D. 1278:

A poor poet presented himself before the chief of a gang of robbers, and recited some verses in his praise. The robber-chief, however, instead of rewarding him, as he fondly expected, ordered him to be stripped of his clothes and expelled from the village. The dogs attacking him in the rear, the unlucky bard stooped to pick up a stone to throw at them, and finding the stones frozen in the ground, he exclaimed, "What a vile set of men are these, who set loose the dogs and fasten the stones!"

Now here we have a very curious instance of the migration of a popular tale from Persia-perchance it first set out on its travels from India -in the thirteenth century, when grave and reverend seigniors wagged their beards and shook their portly sides at its recital, to London in the days of the Scottish Solomon (more properly dubbed "the wisest fool in Christendom"!), when Taylor, the Water Poet, probably heard it told, in some river-side tavern, amidst the clinking of beer-cans and the fragrant clouds blown from pipes of Trinidado, and "put it in his book!" How it came into England it would be interesting to ascertain. It may have been brought to Europe by the Venetian merchants, who traded largely in the Levant and with the Moors in Northern Africa.


1 Powell and Magnusson's Legends of Iceland, Second Series, p. 626.

2 Dictionary of Kashmírí Proverbs and Sayings. Explained and illustrated from the rich and interesting folk-lore of the Valley. By the Rev. J. Hinton Knowles. Bombay: 1885.

3 This work was composed A.H. 776 (A.D. 1374-5), as the anonymous author takes care to inform us in his opening verses.

4 A still older form of the story occurs in the Pancha Tantra (Five Sections), a Sanskrit version of the celebrated Fables of Bidpai, in which a gluttonous ram is in the habit of going to the king's kitchen and devouring all food within his reach. One of the cooks beat him with a burning log of wood, and the ram rushed off with his blazing fleece and set the horses' stables on fire, and so forth. The story is most probably of Buddhist extraction.

5 A Sinhalese variant of the exploit of the man of Norfolk and of the man of Gotham with the sack of meal. "See ante, p. 19." [Transcriber's note: this approximates to the text reference for Chapter II Footnote 1 in this etext.]

6 Mr. C.J.R. le Mesurier in The Orientalist (Kandy, Ceylon: 1884), pp. 233-4.

7 The Orientalist, 1884, p. 234. A much fuller version, with subsequent incidents, is given in the same excellent periodical, pp. 36-38.

8 Archie Armstrong was Court jester to James I. of England. It is needless, perhaps, to say that he had no hand in this book of faceti?, which is composed for the most part of jests taken out of earlier collections.

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